The Three Phases of Homesickness

The Three Phases of Homesickness
Photo Credit: 昇典 葉 @Flickr CC BY ND 2.0
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It has been four years since I arrived in the US.

Everything around me has been constantly changing for the past four years and wrinkles have even started appearing on my face. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the feeling of homesickness.

I didn’t understand what nostalgia meant before I left Taiwan. Back then, I really liked the book “A Good Fall" written by Ha Jin and felt that a lot of nostalgia was hidden between the lines.

Then it was time to leave. I got on a plane and waved goodbye to the lights of Taiwan while in a daze. As the clouds drifted by, I seemed to start to understand what homesick was.

In the beginning, nostalgia seemed to exist in a surreal way. I was living in a happy daze under the beautiful California sunshine and only knew the small things that frustrated me some times wouldn’t happen back home.

And so I entered the first phase of homesickness: not appreciating Taiwan enough before.

I missed the efficiency of the Taiwanese when I was stuck for three hours at the DMV and wanted to strangle the person at the counter.

I missed how Taiwanese people cut you off or how five cars would take up three lanes when I was stuck in traffic on the 405 in Los Angeles.

I missed Taiwanese local treats while eating cold pizza at the school cafeteria and complaining about gaining weight from eating American junk food.

You also have to tip any kind of service. If you don’t, you might get the worse service ever. For example, I was on a U.S. domestic flight once and couldn’t reach the overhead compartment. A flight attendant taller than me instructed me to put the luggage up myself or to ask the man sitting next to me to give me a hand. This made me think of how the fragile flight attendants of EVA Air and China Airlines help passengers with their luggage.

The Taiwanese are dedicated to the service industry and I’m here tipping Americans that provide service with quality that isn’t half of what the Taiwanese offer just because the service industry in America refuses to increase minimum wage and asks the people to share the costs. This makes me want to tip even the clerks at 7-11 when I go back to Taiwan. At least I would do it willingly.

Life is easier when I can still compare and complain.

After all the complaining, the second phase of homesickness is like getting Alzheimer’s.

And for immigrants, you won’t recover from this symptom.

While I’m forever in debt to Facebook, Skype and all free communications software for keeping me in touch with Taiwan, the familiar smells and touches gradually fade away and only voices and 2D images remain. My presence slowly disappears from the Facebook pages, and even lives, of some people and I’m absent from their important life events.

I have missed the wedding of a close friend and haven’t met the newborn child of my relative. I can’t buy birthday cakes for my parents and start to forget the street names of Taipei and gradually even some words and phrases.

During one of my visits back in Taiwan, I found myself at a loss. All of the cafes and bars I used to hang out were all gone. Standing in the alley, I stared blankly at the unfamiliar shops and struggled to put together the images in my mind.

When I was 24, I spend nearly an entire year working night shifts at a coffee bistro. All the bartenders know I am the one who drinks and chats with them from eight to eleven every night while reading or working on the budget for the next quarter on Excel. These memories have drifted away with the wind, just like the people passing by on the street.

Photo Credit: Kinden Kuo @Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

I ordered food with my friends one day in our third year in the US.

I said, “I would die for pig knuckles right now. I haven’t had them in such a long time." (I don’t even like eating pig knuckles when I’m in Taiwan.)
My friend said, “Hey, I actually dreamt I was back in Taiwan last night."
I said, “That sounds nice. What were you doing back in Taiwan?"
My friend said, “I forgot, but I was super happy."

My friend is a very insensitive person. Seeing the faint sorrow in her eyes and then looking at the delicious-looking pork knuckles, I realized…

The third phase of homesickness is the disorder of all senses.

You start to like things you used to hate and start dreaming of the things you love.

On my first business trip to Hawaii, the moisture of the sea in front of my eyes thrilled me. It wasn’t because I was in Hawaii, but because the temperature, humidity and scenery reminded me of Taiwan. My senses were deranged to the point I couldn’t tell the difference between Taiwan and the US.

Homesickness is a kind of hearing disorder.

I was only interested in electronic music and rock music before I went abroad and didn’t have any special feelings for other music. But the songs that once drove me mad became tasteful after leaving Taiwan for a long time.

Chinese New Year melodies used to give me a headache.

But when the same tunes were blaring in Chinese supermarkets in the US, I found myself staring at my shopping cart in a trance. There was no Chinese New Year dinner in my shopping cart nor were my parents or grandparents nearby, only some vegetables and meat for hot pot. The annoying songs suddenly became even more distracting.

But nothing beats hearing “Spring Breeze," a Taiwanese folk song, when flying with EVA Air. It is when extreme homesickness hits. The songs teachers forced us to sing as students aren’t the same when being played on airplanes.

The feeling of becoming strangely emotional upon hearing songs I didn’t use to like often makes me feel as if I’m a teenager again. I always start reading as soon as I’m on the plane to stifle the fragility inside me drawn out by Spring Breeze. I force myself to read no matter how tired I am and try to imagine myself as someone in the story.

But everything changes once I pass customs. My fragile teenage heart vanishes with the clamor of Taipei. The city’s vitality is often overwhelming, especially since I’m used to the quietness and routine life of suburban California. Old aunties still ride their scooters as if others don’t exist, you still squish cockroaches while walking on the streets and trashcans are still nowhere to be found.

But this is the beauty of home.

My homesickness was instantly cured when the muggy air of Taipei hit my face.

The author of this article has authorized publication. The original text was published here.
Translated by Olivia Yang